Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Left v. Right: A little insight

A long time ago, I decided that I am not an artist, but an artisan. I consider writing a skilled trade, and I work at it, and perhaps sometimes I do it well. I'm not afraid to admit I want to sell my wares when they're finished, or that I want to be able to say they're finished and know it to be true. I want measurements and gauges and charts to tell me I've done it right. I don't want to sit around talking about art and how unknowable it is, et cetera.
I know I can't have these things. It doesn't make me want them any less.
I've tried to abandon this attitude in recent years, especially because it produced a lot of stiff, mediocre work. If I wasn't looking at a story as if it were a math equation, then I tended to see it as a business venture. Market testing, focus groups, workshops. Every opinion mattered because every reader mattered, and I wanted to please them all because they were my target consumers. I heard my fellow writers when they told me to write what I wanted to write, for me, not for anyone else, but the fact was that they, too, seemed to be writing for approval. They might not write toward the mass market's notion of "good," but they'd definitely identified a standard and it usually seemed to come from somewhere outside themselves: a famous author, a parent, a teacher. So they weren't just writing for themselves, which meant I didn't have to, either. What I didn't realize was that my sickness came not from wanting to please someone, but wanting to please everyone.
My dad used to push me toward business. He once paid me to read a book about the stock market and encouraged me regularly to take economics and computer classes. He wanted me to be successful, in that American Dream type way. He said I would be an excellent manager--he still says that, though I've learned from experience it isn't true. But though it used to baffle me, I now know what he saw in me that made him do these things. I like organization, even if my bedroom has always been messy. I like order, though I keep things in piles. I always scored higher in math than in English, and when I believe a project is important, I commit to it with everything I've got. The hitch lies in the fact that I don't believe business to be important--in fact, I hate most things about it. I've worked in the hospitality business and I know the last thing that industry is is "hospitable." I've worked in a pharmacy and had to tell sickly old ladies that their pills won't be ready for a few days because it's not financially sound to keep rarely prescribed medicines in stock (my coworkers at that job wanted, for whatever reason, to educate and promote me, but I worked there less than a month).
Throughout my teens I fostered the idea of myself as an artist; I wanted to be an actress/director and thought I would change the world through the theater. Any businesslike behavior I displayed came out through small-scale productions I organized and my brief presidency of the campus drama club. I didn't realize that by being the only person around who would wrestle the coffee cup out of an actor's hand and making him rehearse until he took his part seriously, I was exhibiting exactly the traits my dad had always picked up on. What dad didn't get until later in my life was that the person I became when wrangling actors and building sets would never give a rat's hindquarters about selling most anything. Theater tickets, maybe. But stocks and bonds? I don't think so.
I've only recently realized that my artistic endeavors and my more business-like self operate as one. When my left brain has a job to do, my right brain flourishes. If I don't have a practical project, I get too practical about my writing, setting tight deadlines, making detailed outlines, and doing unnecessary research. Sometimes it gets so bad that I forget to actually write at all, and if I am writing, the quality of my work declines as I begin to think in terms of market research. It's gotten so bad lately that I've almost forgotten what it feels like to be inspired, or to write because I want to and not to fulfill a self-imposed deadline. I need some business to take care of.
We've talked a lot on Bark about the whole muffin man phenomenon, and how some writers need a vocation that is completely separate from their art. What we often don't say is how hard it is to find that other thing you really want to do and become employed in that field. I thought for a while I wanted to be a cook until I worked in a catering kitchen and discovered the torture that is mass-chopping tomatoes and onions for people you never get to meet. I've looked for jobs in bookstores and libraries and never been able to wedge my way in.
You may have seen the episode of Portlandia in which Carrie tells how her sister sells jewelry on the internet--well, I'm not exactly making jewelry now (I tried that a few years back and always wanted to keep the good stuff I made for myself) but I am selling vintage and antique books on Etsy. In the absence of any real job or employable career drive, I've had to make this opportunity for myself, and you know what? It's the best. I've been really committed to it for a little over two months now (New Year's Resolution) and no, I'm not exactly making money yet, but I have had a few sales and am channeling that left-brained energy into the website. I go to estate sales and for the first time since grad school, I'm meeting people who make me want to write about them.
Okay, so what started out as a thoughtful and introspective post has turned into a plug for my online shop. I'm sorry about that. But here's where all that personal stuff comes back:
I have decided several times to quit writing because the business side of me is such a bully. It's much louder and bossier than my creative side, which tends to get pushed into a corner, holding its knees to its chest until the business side is appeased--but though I want to just give in and do what the business side says, the creative side won't go away. She's always in my my peripheral vision, and it's never long before I start to miss her terribly. But for me, both sides are immovable. I can't cut one of them off. I just have to figure out how to give them each the attention they deserve.
Also, here's that clip from Portlandia, if you haven't seen it.

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